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Death on a Factory Farm


This review was tough to write, even for someone who loves to eat meat. I hope it's as tough to read.

Death on a Factory Farm
Produced by: Tom Simon & Sarah Teale
[HBO Films]

I am a carnivore. I have eaten pigs, chickens, cows, ducks, alligators, buffalo, deer, lobsters, crab, tuna, ostrich, and insects. I have always said that I will eat anything that isn’t as smart as me. But, then, where do pigs fall?

One woman in Death on a Factory Farm claims they are fourth on some intelligence scale. And I am aware of this, as a scientist. Pigs are as smart as dogs. However, I would never think of eating bacon as eating a poodle…until I saw this HBO documentary. Humane Farming Association undercover investigator “Pete” (of Dealing Dogs) returns in a brutal and truthful look at a factory farm in Creston, Ohio. Factory farms are those huge, anti-farmer farms that companies like Del Monte would associate with. These are a far cry from the agrarian society that Thomas Jefferson dreamed of. Oh, no. He never envisioned a school bus full of piglets being paraded from barn to barn, squealing and wrenching, being fattened for slaughter.

That’s where the beauty of Death on a Factory Farm lies. Painfully heartfelt and real images: a sow, head caught between bars in a tiny pen, dripping blood from a cut face. And then another farm worker walks in and just says that she is “fucked up.” And then I saw footage of someone “thumping” a piglet. The farm owner’s son, Joe Wiles, takes one of the pigs deemed not fit to sell and smashes it against a wall. That was it. Just slams a juvenile animal against a wall and throws it into a bucket, still kicking and curled into a fetal position.

This review was tough to write, even for someone who loves to eat meat. I hope it’s as tough to read. It’s a strange sort of documentary; it really doesn’t pretend to give you an unbiased opinion. There is no boasting of how to better treat farm animals. They just tell you that pigs are smart, feeling animals. Then the filmmakers show you mass graves.

But, of course, most people don’t feel this way. I do and I don’t. Sadly, the only act that is considered cruel enough to warrant a conviction is when the farmers hang a sick or dying animal until it dies. This scene in the movie was almost unwatchable, even for me. It reminded me of the hanging scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. There would be no Blondie of these pigs. All the while, a woman yells about how cruel this practice is and she’s laughed off. Laughed off, while an animal was writhing and kicking, hanging from a chain on a forklift. It immediately brought to mind the bystander effect, whereby humans will watch other humans being brutally attacked, raped, or even killed and make no moves to stop it. Is this much different from Kitty Genovese being stabbed outside of her home?

The people working on this farm aren’t monsters. The detectives that are reluctant to execute the search warrant aren’t monsters. Maybe HBO wants you to feel that, if just for the time you’re watching the documentary, but it isn’t true. Human beings are predatory animals. We evolved large brains as a direct result of a high protein diet. The first animals we domesticated were dogs, which we used to hunt. Killing and eating meat was bred into our ancestors long before we walked upright. Chimpanzees hunt other monkeys. No one is a monster.

Pete: “What’s the nastiest thing you’ve ever seen here?”

Farm worker: “A pig eating another pig.”


But the actual smartness of this documentary is not to chastise someone for farming or eating an animal. The horrific images are present. The shocking title is present. But “Pete” doesn’t just say not to eat meat or not to kill a hog for food. He comes off as more of an animal lover than a PETA nut.

Therein lays my biggest complaint with Death on a Factory Farm: Where is the solution? As painful as this documentary was to watch, and as painful as I hope it is for you to read about, they don’t give me an answer. This is a problem. Maybe there aren’t any answers. But as someone who wants to eat meat – even though I’m sure I’ll eat a lot less bacon – I want an alternative to these farms. Surely, there’s a hog farm where hogs walk outside of tiny pens. Where sick pigs are euthanized, not just smashed with a hammer or hung from a forklift. Sometimes the best way to show the supposedly evil practices is to show the supposedly good practices. Especially to those of us who want to eat pigs again. Or at least know they will.

The Wiles and their farm were prosecuted for animal cruelty based on this documentary. They showed the sow being hanged. Pigs being thrown. There were five counts of animal cruelty charged and just one, against Joe Wiles, resulted in a conviction. For improper handling of animals the fine was $250, a class on animal care must be taken, and a year of probation was given out. And that was it. As the judge stated, the video was offensive but there aren’t any proper standards or methods of euthanasia and animal care in Ohio. So, though Death on a Factory Farm may have produced a lot of sound and fury, the results weren’t great. And, like all issues, there is no easy answer. I just know that I will hesitate before I buy any ham, especially from the Wiles hog farm.

Death on a Factory Farm is currently airing on HBO OnDemand through April 12 and will also be available on DVD April 21.

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Photos courtesy of HBO

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